Lee County Illinois
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Lee County Agricultural Societies and Fairs

With the fluctuations of human interest and the caprice of the people who raise up interesting features and then when surfeited, like an old plaything, throw them away, the county fair may be classed as a creature created and reared and supported in luxury, and then abandoned. Twice since the first society was started July 14, 1858, it has languished and has been revived, the last time by the citizens of Amboy, under whose fostering care it seems likely to live on forever, as it should, because the county fair is an institution of the greatest value to a community as an educator and as a play ground. During the infancy of the county, William H. Van Epps was the tower of strength which supported the first fairs ever held in Lee County.

Mr. Van Epps was a man of great wealth, of boundless enthusiasm when it came to matters of agriculture or the welfare of Dixon and Lee County. He was the first president of the first fair association and his energy made the old fairs the tremendous successes that they were.

Who is there who can remember back into the fifties, who will forget the old fair grounds located just eastward from the cemetery? The eastern portion of the present cemetery was once the western extreme of that old fair ground. Even well along into the sixties the old fair grounds were mighty familiar to the people of the county and to every school child as well.

In those days it was the custom to admit the children to the fair on the big day, during each session and to the most of us those days were the red letter days of our lives. The side shows then were part of the fair. The barker flourished in all his luxuriousness. The sword swallower delighted the kids; the snake charmer either frightened or awed them into dreadful silence. The fat woman and the fortune teller lured the unwary or delighted the unsophisticated. Oh! What glorious old days those were to us kids!

And don't you remember the day the body of the jewelry peddler was found in the woods by boys in a sad state of decomposition? The poor fellow was murdered by his partner. They went into the woods to cut crotched supports for their tent stall and after the supports had been cut, the axe was used to cleave his skull, and so the poor fellow was buried where his decayed body was found and there his dust rests today. Until very recently, I knew the spot so well I could find it in the night time. The little mound remained there to indicate the spot, so late as the year 1875.

And in that old fairground the Thirteenth Regiment of Illinois Volunteers camped and the buildings were used for barracks until one Sunday morning the boys marched out to the fife and the drum to take the Illinois Central trains provided for their transportation to the theatre of war, as has been pictured so faithfully by Mrs. S. S. Dodge in another pail; of this book.

Largely through the efforts of Mr. Van Epps, the first county agricultural society was formed and in the year 1858, the first fair was held in the old fair grounds near the cemetery. As I have stated, William H. Van Epps was the first president of the society and in this connection it may be stated also that he was vice-president of the state society during the years 1859 and 1860. At the next biennial election he was made president of the state society. The other officers for the first year were: James C. Mead, recording secretary; James A. Hawley, financial secretary; William Butler, treasurer; A. R. Whitney of Franklin Grove, Joseph T. Little of Dixon, F. W. Coe of Palmyra, Abram Brown of South Dixon, William Uhl of Dixon, Lorenzo Wood of Dixon, Seth H. Whitmore of Dixon, Hiram Terry of Dixon and John Moore of Dixon, comprised the executive committee.

The officers of the society for 1859 were: President, William H. Van Epps; vice presidents, Horace Preston, Amboy; Thomas S. Hulbert, Bradford; John K. Robison, Brooklyn; Charles Brackett, China; Joseph Rhodes, Dixon; A. J. Coltrin, Hamilton; J. McManus, Harmon; Lewis Clapp, Lee Center; John T. Phillips, Marion; R. B. Viele, May; A. D. Moon, Palmyra; C. Reynolds, Reynolds; Wesson Holton, Willow Creek, and Hiram Terry, Wyoming; treasurer, Henry T. Noble; recording secretary, Charles V. Tenney; corresponding secretary, Joseph T. Little; executive committee, A. R. Whitney, F. W. Coe, Seth H. Whitmore, John Moore, H. E. Williams, John Dement, Charles Hansen, Charles Gardner and William Butler.

The second fair began its session on Monday, Oct. 10, 1859, and continued with increasing interest, the entire week. The weather was pleasant, with the exception of the second day when it was rainy, with a cold east wind. The crowds in attendance were very large.

There were 167 entries of cattle; 269 of horses; 86 of swine; 75 of sheep; 141 of farm products; 44 of poultry; 53 of agricultural implements; 63 of fruits and flowers; 63 of preserves and jellies; 49 of domestic manufactures; 29 of household fabrics; 63 of paint-rags and drawings; 112 of household implements; 38 of mechanic arts; 16 plowing match; 9 ladies' equestrian ship, and 16 miscellaneous.

There was paid out for 1858 premium disbursements, $75.50; 1859 premiums, $1,448.60. What a jump! Expense account, $1,921.58; cash balance, $71.15; total, $3,516.83.

So that it will be seen at once, after the first year's experiment, there was a tremendous interest manifested in the fair by the people of the county. Among the notable exhibits shown was the collection of Doctor Everett's geological and natural history specimens, all the product of the Rock River valley. Hon. James Shaw of Mount Carroll also exhibited his very large collection of geological specimens.

The plow makers, Andrus and Bosworth of Grand Detour, making the Grand Detour plows, and John Dement, making the John Dement plow, made very attractive exhibits at this fair. This shows that thus early in the history of the county and city, Col. John Dement was a manufacturer of plows. And it may as well be said in this connection, that when he discontinued making them, John Deere, of Moline, personally came to Dixon and hired all of the Colonel's plow makers to go to Moline and work for the Deere Company.

Colonel Dement always exhibited at the state fairs, and I have before me the report of one fair at Springfield in which Colonel Dement's plows were paid a very high compliment. In the face of the strongest possible competition, he was awarded the first premiums over everything else. For over twenty years his plows stood at the head of the list.

Mr. John Courtright also had at this second fair a sorghum mill which he operated on the grounds and which attracted great attention.

Hon. James Shaw, of Mount Carroll, made the address.

During the year several new buildings were built: an editor's hall, art hall, dining hall, farm products hall, ticket and treasurer's office, secretary's office, a public wash room and a grand stand to seat 1,000 persons. Over in the stock department, the number of buildings was doubled.

This year must have been one of severe drought, because Mr. Little speaks about the fine and very large line of exhibits in the face of the severe drought of the summer and fall.

The first year's fair, notwithstanding its marking the beginning of the annual meetings, was a success; so much so that the officers felt warranted in going forward with the extensive improvements which I have mentioned. These fairs grew in interest for several years when the vast drain of our resources by the demands of the Civil war killed the fairs pretty generally over this part of the state, this one included.

On June 2, 1870, another fair association, called the Dixon Park Association, bought extensive grounds just west of town where a fine set of splendid buildings were erected and where a fine half mile track was built.

The fairs in the latter grounds were well attended for ten years. The races brought large numbers of horses to the track and the fair was a money maker. But with the prohibition of pool selling and the decline of interest in fairs, this one languished and died, and no further efforts at holding a county fair were expended until three years ago when William L. Leech, of Amboy, interested a number of friends and in the beautiful Green River park, which the city generously loaned for the purpose, the first fair was held. It was a great success from the start. The second year was a greater success and the present year was a record breaker. Its affairs are managed by a board of directors and they are elected by the stock-holders of the association.

Oh! yes, I had forgotten to note the fact that the first grounds had a first class half mile track, forty feet wide.

For more of the Amboy Fair Association, the reader should read the very interesting account, "Amboy of Today," by Mr. P. M. James.

Lee County History


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